Out And About In Northern Ireland

Youngest Son (YS) took us out for two major trips away from Belfast while we were visiting him for the first time in his new environment in Northern Ireland.  The first was a drive south for a walk in the Mourne Mountains in County Down.  Then he persuaded us to make a very early start to visit the Giant’s Causeway on the north coast of Antrim.  YS loves sunrises and sunsets; on trips he has arranged for us in England, Australia and now Northern Ireland he has repeatedly proven that he is fully justified in that!

Sunrise Starting To Illuminate The Giants Causeway, Antrim, Northern Ireland

Sunrise Starting To Illuminate The Giant’s Causeway, Antrim, Northern Ireland

The first thing that struck me when we approached the Mourne Mountains was the character of the stone walling separating fields and gardens.  Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I are very familiar with stone walls since they are ubiquitous in The Cotswolds.  Indeed, we are currently having a few new ones built to create some terracing in our garden.  But the walls around the Mourne Mountains are very different and very striking.  Essentially they are huge, rounded granite boulders placed on top of each other so their very weight gives the walls strength.

Granite Wall In The Mourne Mountains

Granite Wall In The Mourne Mountains

Even more impressive was the fact that these walls not only skirted the mountain slopes but also sat on the ridge lines right up and over the highest peaks.  The ‘Mourne Wall’ was constructed between in the early 1900’s to define and enclose the catchment area for the Silent Valley Reservoir.  The wall is 22 miles long, crosses the peaks of 15 mountains and keeps farm animals away from the reservoirs and rivers that flow into them.  It’s an amazing feature – both in terms of simple engineering and of beauty.

Walking Up Beside Part Of The Mourne Wall

Walking Up Beside Part Of The Mourne Wall

We were blessed with perfect weather for walking.  It was sunny but a great deal cooler than the simultaneous overbearing and sweltering weather back home in Gloucestershire.  The wispy and puffy clouds not only helped with the backdrops to the photos but created a constantly shifting, dappled shade across the muted mauves, greens, greys and browns of the mountainsides.

Views And Granite Rock Formations At The Summits

Views And Granite Rock Formations At The Summits

The circular walk was challenging but not exhausting.  The views from the peaks of Wee Binnian and Slieve Binnian were easily worth the exertion.  The subsequent substantial and carbohydrate laden brunch at Railway St felt very well deserved.

Our second trip out of Belfast with YS started before 5.30am.  YS drove us snoozy oldsters out to the Giant’s Causeway Heritage Site.  We effectively had the place to ourselves throughout our visit and as the sun rose over the cliffs and started to illuminate the causeway, we felt very privileged and pleased with YS’s insistence on an early start.

The Giants Causeway

The Giants Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway itself was much as I had expected – after all, it is so well documented in pictures including some we had seen when YS had visited the place a few weeks earlier.  What was a more unexpected pleasure was the walk around the adjacent cliffs and the ruggedness of the nearby coast.  That feeling of wildness was enhanced by the lack of other visitors at such an early hour, but also by the path closure signs (which we partially ignored) which warned of rock falls for which there was plenty of recent evidence.

Some of the 40,000 Hexagonal Basalt Column Tops Forming the Causeway And (Bottom Left) Other Huge Columns Forming Cliffs

Some of the 40,000 Hexagonal Basalt Column Tops Forming The Causeway And (Bottom Left) Other Huge Columns Forming Cliffs

YS took us on to see Dunluce Castle which was one of the locations used for The Game of Thrones television series (Greyjoy Castle apparently).  It is certainly spectacularly located and, when the coronavirus has passed, it would be great to visit this National Trust property more fully.

Dunluce Castle

Dunluce Castle

We then went on to White Rocks Beach which was a further geological surprise: chalk cliffs backing a beautiful sandy beach.  Then, after a brief walk around Portstewart, we refuelled with breakfast in The Three Kings.

White Rocks Beach, Antrim

White Rocks Beach, Portrush, Antrim

Old Salmon Fisherman's Cottage Near Portstewart

Old Salmon Fisherman’s Cottage Near Portstewart, County Derry/Londonderry

We made and attempted a couple more stops to see some of the dramatic landscapes used in The Game of Thrones series.  But the visits to White Park Bay and Boheeshane Bay were brief or aborted as, by now, crowds of other tourists were gathering and car parking was becoming problematic.  I can feel another 5.30 am start being required next time we visit Northern Ireland to see YS!

White Park Bay, Antrim

White Park Bay, Antrim

There certainly will be a next time.  Some aspects of the tour around Counties Antrim and Down were expected: the calming greenness and the quiet, rural character.  But there were many surprises too and we want to see more.  Perhaps the multi-day itinerary we had planned for a walk along the South West Coastal Path in England last June, but which we had to cancel due to the coronavirus, will switch into an Irish coastal walk rather than just be rescheduled for next year.  Who knows, but we certainly enjoyed this first taster of Northern Ireland very much.

Belfast

After long consideration of the relative risks during the Coronavirus pandemic, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I finally swallowed feelings of unease and flew to Belfast to see Youngest Son (YS) and his Northern Irish girlfriend in their new home.  We had a packed four full days there – so packed that I will use two blog posts to cover my thoughts on our trip.  Here is the first.

Travel to Belfast by car and ferry was going to take a day and the fastest route involved travelling through the Irish Republic.  We were concerned about possible quarantine restrictions being imposed there during our trip but the ferry direct to Belfast from Birkenhead took nine hours and we couldn’t face that.  So we plumped for a short flight from Bristol, our closest airport, and a payment to Solar Aid to offset the carbon emission and to help people in Africa.

The 'Beacon Of Hope', Belfast (Also Known As: 'Nuala With The Hula' and 'The Thing With The Ring'

The ‘Beacon Of Hope’, Belfast (Also Known As: ‘Nuala With The Hula’ and ‘The Thing With The Ring’)

We had a wonderful time in and around a surprisingly sunny Belfast.  Fundamentally, it was good to be able to see how YS now lives.  Also, having shared a number of misgivings about his move to Northern Ireland while he had been staying with us during the Covid-19 lockdown, the visit indicated our validation of his move.  Beyond that, we ate and drank well, got a good feel for Belfast, and managed a day on the north Antrim coast and a day in the Mourne Mountains.  I’ll write more on those two trips another time.

LSW had the wise suggestion of starting our stay with a bus tour of Belfast.  With our best face masks firmly fastened again, we rode around centre and immediate suburbs of Belfast.  Much of the journey was through and past places that we recalled vividly from news reports of sectarian strife in the latter part of the last century: the Europa Hotel, Shankhill Road, Falls Road, Crumlin Road Gaol.  The Peace Wall separating communities in the west of the city is now repurposed for genuine messages of peace but it was still shocking.  The murals and the flags in many of the streets indicated the recent rawness of The Troubles.  Coupled with the helpful bus tour commentary, we got a very good introduction to the city.

Two Of The Very Many Street Murals Reflecting The Troubles Of The Past

Two Of The Very Many Street Murals Reflecting The Troubles Of The Past

Early highlights of the tour were the famous Belfast shipyards and new Titanic Experience museum which we visited on the following day.  My expectations of the visit weren’t very high – I thought that the exhibition would major on the sinking and the romance of the likes of Winslet and de Caprio in the award winning film; I was wrong.

The Titanic Experience Building

The Titanic Experience Building

The material on the Titanic’s fatal maiden voyage and a cross-section of the people who travelled and survived was well presented.  The exhibition also provided a lot of fascinating context such as the history of Belfast and, especially, the way industry built up around linen manufacture and then shipbuilding.  The exhibits included interactive displays and a splendidly unexpected and well operated automated ride through part of the building.  This was laced with audio and video that allowed us to get a better feel for the working conditions in the dry docks and the scale of undertaking to build the Titanic.

Our fortune with the weather made wandering the streets of Belfast pleasant.  There are few pre-Victorian buildings and many central streets are a strange mix of run down warehouses and old office buildings, late-Victorian civic and religious buildings (such as the Customs House, City Hall, and St Annes Cathedral) and the usual modern mish-mash of shops and offices.

Albert Memorial Clock (Yes, It Really Is Leaning Over), St Annes Cathedral And Belfast City Hall

Albert Memorial Clock (Yes, It Really Is Leaning Over), St Annes Cathedral And Belfast City Hall

One of the most impressive buildings is Stormont which is now the home of Northern Ireland’s Parliamentary assembly.  It was built in the 1930s next to the late Victorian Stormont Castle and sits in wide open grass and wooded grounds.  It is surprisingly accessible and views of it and from it are impressive.

Stormont

Stormont

Apart from Stormont and the City Hall, the city did not appear elegant but there is huge potential and an emerging vibrancy.  We saw the rumbustiousness of that vibrancy on Saturday night in the bar-laden Cathedral Quarter (not much social distancing there!) and in the presence of new hip coffee shops, cafes and restaurants.  Of these we particularly liked Freight, Established, General Merchants and OX Cave (sister wine bar to OX restaurant which we look forward to trying next time we are in Belfast).  Our centrally located hotel, The Flint, was also cool and comfortable.  We felt safe from Covid-19 and everything else wherever we went and the people we met were very friendly.

Belfast 3-D Street Art

Belfast 3-D Street Art

Other highlights in the City were a mini picnic and coastal walk along the river Langan estuary to Helens Bay and visit to Belfast’s rather weary but endearing Botanic Gardens.  The Palm House there is a scaled down, but rather more beautiful, version of the Palm House in Kew Gardens.  LSW and I used to live in Kew and so it brought back some old memories.

Palm House, Belfast Botanic Gardens

Palm House, Belfast Botanic Gardens

On our final evening in Belfast, we went to dinner at the house of YS’s girlfriend’s parents.  We had a lovely evening enjoying their hospitality and catching up with them for the first time since they visited Gloucestershire several years ago.  It was an excellent finale to an excellent few days in Belfast.

Sunset Across Langan River Estuary

Sunset Across Langan River Estuary